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10 tips to craft a winning 1hr TV Pilot

If you want to break into TV writing, having an outstanding original 1hr TV pilot in your

portfolio is an absolute must have. It not only showcases your creativity; it’s how you prove you’ve mastered all of the unique challenges that come with writing for the small screen.


With so many additional considerations to think about when writing a 1hr pilot (as opposed to a feature), we’ve come up with a list of 10 essential tips to ensure that your calling card

to the world gets you noticed – and for all the right reasons!


1. Deliver the Promise of the Premise - Fast: Consider cutting back on the setup needed

to get your story going. All too often, a new writer uses the entire pilot to establish

the premise, essentially making episode one feel like a really long run up to the

inciting incident. If a show is about vampire-slaying grandmothers, the audience

should be able to gather that within the first 12-15 mins, not have it revealed in the

last five minutes of the episode.


2. Hook: Cold opens or teasers are effective ways to jump straight into the most

compelling part of a story, hooking the viewers straight away. They’re not essential,

so don’t throw them in just because. Creating a riveting mystery, introducing

captivating characters, or building tension, suspense, and atmosphere are all equally

great ways to hook too. The key aspect is to grab, continue to hook, and leave us

wanting more… and more... and more!


3. Master Structure: Yes, the three-act structure can still very much apply to tv writing,

but using 5-act (and now 6-act) structures are expected. Why? Again, it’s all about

hooks. There’s a greater need to stop the viewer from channel surfing during the

numerous ad breaks, so ending acts on cliffhangers, big questions we’ll want

answered, or lots of ‘what happens next’ questions is essential, and using shorter

acts helps to achieve this. Deciding whether your show is episodic, a serial, a limited

series etc., should help you research which structure fits best.


4. Craft Unique/Relatable Characters: Even if you’ve got a brilliant high-concept idea,

don’t scrimp on the character design. An audience spends much more time with TV

characters than they do in a movie, so there’s got to be something well-worth

returning for time and time again. Diversity is your friend here. Create a varied cast

that not only creates natural conflict within the group, but means there’s someone

there for everyone to root for (and hate!).


5. Understand Arcs: Unlike in a feature, characters aren’t expected to have conclusive

arcs during the pilot episode. Instead, they’ll be expected to have one (or more) over

the duration of the season and beyond. You can certainly expand on potential arcs in

a treatment or TV bible, but in terms of the pilot script, stick to sowing seeds, foreshadowing, and fully establishing any character flaws, prejudices, problems etc.

that will be overcome as the series unfolds.


6. Include Subplots: There’s more scope to explore themes, create further drama, and

spend time with engaging secondary characters in TV, and the best way to do this is

via subplots. There’s no set amount, but including an A-Story, B-Story, and C-Story is

the traditional method that doesn’t over complicate things. Subplots are a great way

to manipulate the pace by providing cliffhangers, breathing moments, or add new

layers to the conflict, which enhances the structure of a show too.


7. World-Build: The great thing about TV is that there’s much more time to develop and

explore the story world that you’ve created. Make the setting of your show as much

of a character as the cast is. Not by going overboard with laborious detailed scene

description, but by allowing the environment to influence the characters and plot.

Throw the budget away and let your imagination run wild. A spec pilot script is your

opportunity to write no holds barred.


8. Less is More: Sure, in TV there’s room to expand the story world, develop multiple

character arcs, and there’s more screen time to fill than in a feature, but don’t cram

everything your concept has to offer into the pilot episode! We don’t need to meet

every single character, see every location, begin every subplot, or include every twist

etc. Stick to only giving the essentials. That way, you’re not overwhelming the

audience (or reader) with too much info and there’s also enough story left to sustain

an entire season.


9. Have an original concept: Avoid jumping on the band wagon or trying to follow

trends when it comes to concept. Due to long production and development times, if

somethings already on our screens, that trends already passed. Script readers don’t

want to sift through countless variations of an already existing show. They want

something new, never seen before, and authentic. A great idea that has ‘wow’ factor

can render average writing forgivable. It’s all about sparking interest and intrigue in

the reader.


10. Write with the audience in mind: This doesn’t just apply to the people potentially

watching your show; think about who is going to be reading the script too. Does your

script fit the remit for the contest, fellowship, or studio that you’re sending it to? Is it

the right genre, page-length, layout? Does it contain the expected tropes as well as

ones that will surprise, shock, or excite? The more you know about whose hands

your script will reach, the more prepared you’ll be to meet (and excel) their

expectations.


To sum up, a winning 1hr TV pilot needs to try that little bit harder to ‘give us the same, but different’ in order to stand out. Grabbing the reader with an original idea is just the first

part. Think of your spec script like a job application, because that’s what it is. It’s where you demonstrate that you have all the additional tools required. Nailing structure, creating captivating characters, taking the viewer on a controlled emotional rollercoaster that keeps them hooked, etc. Follow the 10 tips above to ensure that your script does all that and more!



The FINAL Deadline for our TV Pilot Screenplay Competition is November 30th! Submit your TV Pilot here - https://writers.coverfly.com/competitions/view/outstanding-screenplays-tv-pilot


Looking forward to reading your work.


Best of luck


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